In 1968, decades before reality-TV and social media, sentient artist and pop culture icon Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” A decade later he would find himself visiting a Nashville institution that had by that time been world-famous for more than 50 years.
Through his art, Warhol had become one of the planet’s most celebrated but enigmatic figures, attending glittering social events, frequenting New York’s upscale restaurants and nightclubs, and mingling at various functions with everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to John Lennon.
In late January 1977, at the end of a month that had already seen him jet-setting from New York to London, Paris, Rome and Kuwait, Warhol landed in Nashville to attend an event with fellow artist Jamie Wyeth, the son and grandson, respectively, of acclaimed artists Andrew and N.C. Wyeth. In 1976, Warhol and Wyeth had painted portraits of each other and attended openings that year during which the portraits and accompanying sketches were exhibited. These events took place in a New York gallery, at a museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania — where Wyeth was raised — and at Nashville’s Cheekwood Fine Arts Center, where the portraits and sketches were displayed. Scores of art lovers and curiosity seekers converged on Cheekwood Sunday, January 30th, to get a glimpse of Warhol, whose shock of white hair, pale skin and perpetual shoe-gazing provided endless fascination for the press and public. Also in attendance at the event were dignitaries and other VIPs including Capricorn Records head Phil Walden, accompanied by a then-largely unknown film and TV star to whom Warhol referred in a diary entry on the event as “Don Johnson, that cute actor.”
Warhol, who noted in his diary that he stayed with a married couple referred to only as “Martin” and “Peggy,” and affiliated with Jack Daniel’s distillery, wrote that he and Wyeth were greeted at the airport when they landed that Saturday by eight cheerleaders waving their pom-poms and doing cheers for the visiting artists. Then, later that night he and his entourage made their way to the Grand Ole Opry. “I’ve listened to the Opry on the radio for 20 years,” Warhol told a reporter beforehand, according to the Tennessean newspaper. “It’s a certain kind of poetry they’re doing.”
In the Opry’s backstage area, Warhol milled about, saying very little but juggling a cassette recorder, an Opry program, postcards and a bag of Goo Goo Clusters candy given to him by Dorothy Ritter (widow of country star Tex). He took special note of the gold rings adorning singer Marty Robbins’ fingers and signed a few autographs while meeting others backstage, including Roy Acuff, whose photos he snapped. Approached by a member of Warhol’s group, Acuff, ever the Southern gentleman and congenial Opry host, walked up to Warhol and shook his hand.
“No sir, I don’t know who that man is,” Acuff was heard to say after the brief encounter. “He could be a jailbird or a celebrity or a detective for all I know. Whoever he is, we’re mighty happy to have him here.”
Warhol, whose later portrait subjects included country superstar Dolly Parton, died in 1987 at age 58.